A dinner party that morphs into a spouse-swapping swingers’ bash may well be the hook that has attracted audiences to Jeff Gould’s It’s Just Sex – A Comedy About Lust & Trust since its World Premiere at the Whitefire back in 2002, but it’s the playwright’s perceptiveness about male-female relationships, the depth he gives his characters, and the unexpected life changes each couple ends up undergoing that has turned It’s Just Sex into L.A.’s longest-running comedy (factoring in its later runs at the Zephyr and the Two Roads), sent it off-Broadway in 2013, and have now brought it back to NoHo’s Secret Rose Theatre with an upcoming Las Vegas run likely in the cards.
Gould’s comedy opens quite literally with a bang, since when we first meet Husband Number One (John Colella as Phil), he’s in his living room banging Amanda The Hooker (Claudia Graf) with so much explosive force, he doesn’t even notice when wife Joan (Reamy Hall) shows up earlier than anticipated, the better to prepare for the get-together they’re throwing for their four best married friends.
It’s indicative of Phil and Joan’s problematic marriage that once Amanda has hit the road, cash firmly in hand, Joan sets about cleaning up the place for their imminent shindig-for-six rather than rage at her husband’s infidelity as most other wives would do.
Meanwhile over at the abode of Couple Number Two, Carl (Vincent Spano) and Kelly (Betsy Russell) are still so hot for each other after umpteen years of marriage that they end up postponing their departure for Phil and Joan’s a tad, no matter that everyone knows that “being fashionably late means you were screwing before you got there.”
The equally long-married Greg (Andy Hirsch) and Lisa (Stephanie Fredricks) show up late too, though in their case it might simply be due to the couple’s not having taken the fastest route, the age-old L.A. debate between stop sign-infested surface streets or a traffic-jammed freeway. It’s certainly not due to any pre-party shenanigans, unless you count Greg’s flaccid, failed attempt to pleasure his unsatisfied wife.
Carl and Kelly and Greg and Lisa do eventually all find themselves drinks in hand under Phil and Joan’s roof, and once a considerable number of alcoholic libations have been imbibed, the couples decide at Joan’s suggestion to play some drinking games, the better to discover just whose secrets are the deepest and darkest.
One bit of truth-telling leads to another, and before long a proposition has been made. What if the sextet were to split up into unmarried pairs for a trio of sextête-à-têtes?
Let the games begin!
Titillating as this set-up may be, it’s what happens post-coitus that transforms It’s Just Sex into something a good deal more meaty than the hors-d’oeuvres served up so far, the couples’ adulterous shenanigans (which we get to spy on, if only in silhouette) eventually revealing one marriage’s strengths, another’s possibly terminal failings, and in the case of the third, a love the long-marrieds might have thought died years ago.
Playwright Gould’s way with one-liners is but one reason his script (shortened and tightened from its original two-act format) has proven such a crowd-pleaser over the past dozen years, but not the only one.
Gould’s understanding of the proverbial “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” dynamic counts for a great deal of It’s Just Sex’s success as well, as when one character observes that men find it “the ultimate sacrifice to settle down and not to sleep with a hundred different women” or another remarks that for women, the ultimate sacrifice would be being allowed to talk to only one person (and one person alone) for the rest of their lives.
Rick Shaw’s sharp direction, too, has surely had much to do with It’s Just Sex’s success since he signed on to the project in 2008, and the same can be said about the cast assembled for the long-running comedy’s current incarnation.
Real-life marrieds Colella and Hall anchor the latest It’s Just Sex ensemble with a pair of finely-tuned performances, Colella’s star turn proving hardly a surprise given his Scenie-winning lead performance in Rex Pickett’s Sideways The Play, though it’s Hall whose work ends up the evening’s most revelatory as Joan’s brittle, acerbic facade begins to crumple before our eyes.
As for Spano, though it is now over thirty years since movie audiences first discovered the Italian-American film newbie opposite Rosanna Arquette in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, the actor’s leading-man looks and sex appeal endure, and though it well may be his name that attracts movie/TV fans to the Secret Rose, it’s Spano’s acting chops that make his stereotype-defying Italian stallion such a treat to watch opposite the suntanned Russell, well cast as sexy Malibu gal Kelly.
The always engaging Hirsch follows his dramatic turns in Sunny Afternoon and Judgment At Nuremburg with a display of some tiptop comedic chops opposite red-headed stunner Fredricks, divine as always, before the duo transition effortlessly into more dramatic waters.
As for Amanda The Hooker, though Graf appears only briefly, her supermodel looks and glamour suit the statuesque (and presumably high-priced) call girl to a T.
Shaw, Josh Iacovelli, and Chris Winfield have collaborated on It’s Just Sex’s stylish-if-basic scenic design, its three-panel backdrop worthy of note for the surprise it offers courtesy of lighting designer Maarten Cornelis. Uncredited costumes seem to be just what each character might choose to sport. Shari Shaw and Shepard Stern’s music design “& mash-up” incorporates sexy pop hits to amusing effect.
Andrew Nunemacher is production and stage manager. Janie Mudrick is associated producer. Casting is by Jami Rudofsky.
Short, swift, often side-splitting, and most importantly, serious when it should be, Jeff Gould’s It’s Just Sex – A Comedy About Lust & Trust knows precisely what it’s doing … and what it’s doing, it does quite well. See it with someone you’re married to … if you dare.
Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood.
August 31, 2014
Production stills: Maura McCarthy